Saturday, March 3, 2018
Pharoah Sanders - 1971  "Thembi"
The album is named after Sanders's wife. Sanders moved away from the long, intense compositions of his solo albums and produced an album of shorter tracks. He and other musicians played a large variety of instruments. Sanders played tenor, alto, and soprano saxophone, bailophone (African thumb piano), small percussion instruments, and a cow horn.
Sanders's other major collaborator, pianist and composer Lonnie Liston Smith, performs on Thembi (though this would be the last time they recorded together). Also featured are violinist Michael White, bassist Cecil McBee, and percussionists Chief Bey, Majid Shabbaz, and Nat Bettis. "Thembi", "Astral Travelling' and "Morning Prayer" were included on the two-disc anthology, You've Got to Have Freedom, on Soul Brother Records. ' Lonnie Liston Smith began experimenting with electric keyboards while recording this album.
On Thembi, that was the first time that I ever touched a Fender Rhodes electric piano. We got to the studio in California — Cecil McBee had to unpack his bass, the drummer had to set up his drums, Pharoah had to unpack all of his horns. Everybody had something to do, but the piano was just sitting there waiting. I saw this instrument sitting in the corner and I asked the engineer, 'What is that?' He said, 'That's a Fender Rhodes electric piano.' I didn't have anything to do, so I started messing with it, checking some of the buttons to see what I could do with different sounds. All of a sudden I started writing a song and everybody ran over and said, 'What is that?' And I said, 'I don't know, I'm just messing around.' Pharoah said, 'Man, we gotta record that. Whatcha gonna call it?' I'd been studying astral projections and it sounded like we were floating through space so I said let's call it 'Astral Traveling.' That's how I got introduced to the electric piano.
Thembi has been criticized for its somewhat cut-and-paste feel (it was compiled from two sessions, recorded in 1970 and 1971); the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, written by Richard Cook and Brian Morton, offers a particularly harsh assessment. However, Ashley Kahn, author of The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records, describes it as "a career high-point: [it was] co-produced by Michel and rock producer Bill Szymczyk, who together introduced Sanders's music to advanced studio techniques of the day — close miking, overdubbing, and effects like reverb, echo, and phasing."
Recorded with two different ensembles, Thembi was a departure from the slowly developing, side-long, mantra-like grooves Pharoah Sanders had been pursuing for most of his solo career. It's musically all over the map but, even if it lacks the same consistency of mood as many of Sanders' previous albums, it does offer an intriguingly wide range of relatively concise ideas, making it something of an anomaly in Sanders' prime period. Over the six selections, Sanders romps through a tremendous variety of instruments, including tenor, soprano, alto flute, fifes, the African bailophone, assorted small percussion, and even a cow horn. Perhaps because he's preoccupied elsewhere, there's relatively little of his trademark tenor screaming, limited mostly to the thunderous cacophony of "Red, Black & Green" and portions of "Morning Prayer." The compositions, too, try all sorts of different things. Keyboardist/pianist Lonnie Liston Smith's "Astral Traveling" is a shimmering, pastoral piece centered around his electric piano textures; "Love" is an intense, five-minute bass solo by Cecil McBee; and "Morning Prayer" and "Bailophone Dance" (which are segued together) add an expanded percussion section devoted exclusively to African instruments. If there's a unifying factor, it's the classic title track, which combines the softer lyricism of Sanders' soprano and Michael White's violin with the polyrhythmic grooves of the most Africanized material (not to mention a catchy bass riff). Some fans may gripe that Thembi isn't conceptually unified or intense enough, but it's rare to have this many different sides of Sanders coexisting in one place, and that's what makes the album such an interesting listen.
It is strange that two of the most striking albums made by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders during the first flush of late 1960s/early 1970s astral jazz have been so often overlooked in reissue series. Tauhid (Impulse!, 1967)—the recording which launched astral jazz, the style Sanders fashioned alongside harpist/pianist Alice Coltrane—and Thembi have been available only intermittently during the last 20 years.
Tauhid is unalloyed bliss from start to finish, a sweet and lyrical evocation of Eastern mysticism which established astral's template: prominent African and Asian percussion instruments; velvet-sandpaper saxophone vocalizations and multiphonics; hummable tunes and melody-centric improvisations; rock steady bass ostinatos; piano vamps; chanted vocals; rich collective grooves.
Thembi inhabits this territory over four of its six tracks, but steps out of it on the other two. The album was recorded during two sessions—in Los Angeles in November 1970 (tracks 1-3), and in New York City in January 1971 (tracks 4-6)—with some changes in personnel. Sanders, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and bassist Cecil McBee were present at both sessions; violinist Michael White was in Los Angeles, though was featured little; traps drummer Roy Haynes and four percussionists replace Los Angeles' drummer Clifford Jarvis and percussionist James Jordan in New York.
The album opens with Smith's "Astral Traveling," a lush, sweeping group workout foursquare in the astral paradigm; in 1973, Smith, too, used it as an opening track, on his solo debut Astral Traveling, on ex-Impulse! producer Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman label. The tune is given an exquisite performance on both albums, with Sanders' presence giving his Thembi version the edge.
But on Thembi, "Astral Traveling" proves to be the calm before the perfect storm. "Red, Black & Green," which follows, is as ferocious as is suggested by its title, a reference to the colors made emblematic by black liberation movements in the US and Africa. At 8:56 minutes, it is the second longest track on the album, and Sanders' overdubbed saxophones are foregrounded practically throughout, played in a style closer to the tumultuous one adopted by Sanders when he was a member of saxophonist John Coltrane's groups in 1966-67. Here, Sanders' sole concession is to play within a marginally more lyrical harmonic framework.
"Thembi" returns to the melodic, ostinato-driven palette of "Astral Traveling," before the album once more switches out of the astral comfort zone.
"Love," is an unaccompanied, 5:12 minute bass solo. If you are already reaching for the "skip track" button, don't do it. McBee turns in a corker, starting conventionally enough, albeit with frequent use of percussive, "Africanized" string-on-wood effects, before focusing on cleanly articulated high-harmonics (well recorded by producer Ed Michel and engineer Bill Szymczyk). Given all the tirelessly iterated ostinatos McBee contributed to Sanders' music—here and on Izipho Zam (Strata East, 1969) and Impulse!'s Jewels Of Thought (1970), Summun, Bukmun, Umyun (1970), Black Unity (1972), Wisdom Through Music (1972) and Village Of The Pharoahs (1973)—he was owed this five minutes alone, and he seizes them; "Love" is the sort of track that gives bass solos a good name.
The closing "Morning Prayer" and "Bailophone Dance" return to more familiar, collective astral territory. "Morning Prayer," at 9:11 minutes the longest track, revisits the fierce tenor heard on "Red, Black & Green," but in an amiable, ostinato-driven groove. "Bailophone Dance," built around a traditional West African cross-rhythm, makes good use of hand drummers Chief Bey, Majid Shabass, Anthony Wiles and Nat Bettis.
Delicious, essential listening.
1. Astral Travelling (Lonnie Liston Smith) - 5:48
2. Red, Black & Green (Sanders) - 8:56
3. Thembi (Sanders) - 7:02
4. Love (Cecil McBee) - 5:12
5. Morning Prayer (Sanders/Liston Smith) - 9:11
6. Bailophone Dance (Sanders) - 5:43
Pharoah Sanders – tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute, koto, brass bells, balaphone, maracas, cow horn, fifes
Lonnie Liston Smith – piano, electric piano, claves, percussion, ring cymbal, shouts, balaphone
Michael White – violin, percussion
Cecil McBee – bass, finger cymbal, percussion
Roy Haynes – drums
Clifford Jarvis – drums, maracas, bells, percussion
Nat Bettis, Chief Bey, Majid Shabazz, Anthony Wiles – African percussion
James Jordan – ring cymbal
Posted by Crimhead420 at 9:02 PM